Development has been booming in rural Park County, with landowners hustling to subdivide their properties and put up new structures. But before a project gets too far, the county’s planning and …
Development has been booming in rural Park County, with landowners hustling to subdivide their properties and put up new structures. But before a project gets too far, the county’s planning and zoning department asks that landowners and developers get in touch.
“Before any project, just let us know,” says Park County Planning and Zoning Director Joy Hill.
The county has fewer regulations than the local municipalities, but there are still requirements in place. The process is intended to catch any issues with things like septic system siting and access — in advance of construction, Hill said.
“We can help them make sure they don’t have to change something down the line,” she said.
Hill cautioned that the process does take some time.
“Everybody wants it now, and we can’t promise you now,” she said. That’s partially because the department’s rules and procedures don’t allow for instantaneous approval, “but also because we have so many applications,” she said. “We can’t respond as quickly as we normally could.”
In the last fiscal year, which ran from July 2019 through June 2020, the department issued 337 building permits. But between July 1 and last week — with more than two months to go in the fiscal year — staff had already issued 359 such permits.
“I’m not joking when I say it’s the season of building,” Hill said. “It is busy.”
The numbers are particularly striking considering only 220 permits were issued in 2016 — a total that could theoretically be doubled by the end of June.
“There’s been some pretty good jumps,” Hill said.
Meanwhile, the county has received 11 final plats for major or minor subdivisions and 10 simple subdivisions this fiscal year.
Park County’s rules require the department to respond to applications within 14 days and “most of the time we’re under that,” Hill said, adding, “We used to be faster, but we are literally just bombarded right now.”
Applicants can help themselves out by making sure they have all the necessary information.
“Completeness really does determine how quickly something gets done,” Hill said.
For instance, residents need to ensure they have a percolation test in-hand before getting a small wastewater permit for their septic system. Those permits cost $200, in part because county staff conduct an on-site inspection.
Hill said small wastewater issues are a high priority for the department, as “we don’t want people polluting other people’s water supplies and things like that.”
Meanwhile, a building permit is required for projects like a new home, a new addition, garages, barns, sheds (including those on skids) and other accessory uses — such as storage containers and RVs being used for more than 90 days in a year. (Dog houses and chicken coops, however, do not need a permit.)
Unlike some city permits, the fee does not change based on the size of the project; the county charges a flat $50. So for example, when billionaire musician and entrepreneur Kanye West sought a permit last year to construct a 52,000 square foot, 10-bedroom underground residence at his ranch south of Cody — a structure that would rank among the world’s largest homes — he, too, was charged $50.
Changes to the interior of a home don’t need a permit, Hill said, as the concern is whether the footprint is changing. Staff particularly care if a bedroom is being added, she said, because that could potentially require an expanded septic system to accommodate the home’s additional capacity.
The county’s review process has arguably become more important in recent months, as there are a lot of out-of-state residents buying property “sight unseen,” and potentially unaware that their home site lacks utilities or easy access, Hill said.
Water access has also become a problem amid the boom in development, with the Northwest Rural Water District effectively out of available taps in the Garland area.
Problems can also crop up when a property owner orders a house before their septic system has been reviewed.
“If you already put the slab in and then you found out the groundwater’s at 3 feet, guess what? You’re going to have to pump your stuff up to the surface,” Hill said. In contrast, knowing the groundwater is high before construction starts could allow the owner to raise the height of their house.
“There’s a reason why we want you to do those things first,” she said.
Other parts of the county’s review process will ensure structures are set back far enough from county right-of-ways, are not located within a floodplain and that the property is addressed — which is critical for first responders in the event of an emergency, she said.
Additionally, if you plan on starting up a business in rural Park County, much of the time you’ll need a special use permit, Hill said. That’s a months-long process that involves public hearings before the Planning and Zoning Commission and the Park County Commission. The county charges a $300 fee, with additional costs to notify neighbors through certified mail and to notify the public through newspaper ads.
During the process, county staff check to make sure the parking and septic system are adequate and to check for disturbances to neighbors, among other issues.
Hill said people “are getting very creative with what they do to make money,” and “we want to encourage people, obviously, to go after these dreams.”
“But we need to make sure we’re doing it the right way,” she said.
Some people who go through the county’s permitting processes are surprised to learn there aren’t any building codes or inspectors — and some wish the county had those in place, Hill said.
However, Park County commissioners have no plans to add the level of oversight that would come with county-wide codes.
For one thing, “It’s really expensive in a rural environment,” Hill said. While building officials in the cities of Powell and Cody are never more than 10 minutes away from the structures they’re inspecting, out in the county, “we could be looking at an hour and 10 minutes just to get there,” she said.
“We do think codes are important,” Hill added, “but we have to be realistic.”
The added oversight also brings added costs for developers and landowners; Hill noted the county’s permits for a new home generally cost $250, while building the same structure in the city would bring thousands of dollars in fees.
Hill said it’s relatively common for people to put up structures without the required permits; planning staffers “don’t have to drive very far to see it where it’s not supposed to be happening,” Hill said.
The county encourages property owners who realize they’re out of compliance to contact the planning office.
“Most times you just come and you get a permit and it’s not a big deal,” Hill said.
However, the county can charge a $150 investigation fee if it discovers a violation on its own.
For more information about the county’s planning and zoning regulations, visit parkcounty.us/planningandzoning/planandzone.html or call 307-754-8540.